Shelter, a column about New Yorkers and the places they call home, ran in this paper from 1997 to 2006. To relaunch the feature, which will run here online weekly, we’ve assembled five portraits of New Yorkers at home.
Location: Lower East Side
Size: One bedroom
Price: $325,000 in January 2010
Occupants: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (musician, artist, “living legend”)
“P Orridge” appears on the lobby buzzer, as if it’s just any other name. An elevator ride away, there is artist and provocateur Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, all charcoal eyes and leather motorcycle vest. Opening the door with a silver-knuckled hand, she presents her Manhattan one-bedroom apartment with a game-show-prize-unveiling swoop. “Look how far the mighty have fallen,” she projects in an all-knowing British lilt.
“Mighty,” absolutely. “Fallen” is inaccurate. “Evolved” seems more like it.
Purchased a year ago for $325,000 and requiring $60,000 in renovations, this has been Genesis’s nest since June 2010, when she (or s/he, as Gen specifies) sold the Ridgewood, Queens, brownstone that she and her late wife, Lady Jaye, had shared for more than a decade. In preparation for the move, she held a two-day tag sale in a Queens-basement art gallery. Splayed out for prospective buyers were punk-rock dresses with safety-pinned seams, a volcanic-rock-shaped mirror-ball blob, and a pink glass perfume bottle marked $65. Oh, and a table full of dildos. The latter wasn’t Gen’s idea, she clarifies. Friends helping her dig through drawers and boxes discovered a cache of sex toys, and someone suggested putting them out for $100 a piece. “I’m like, ‘No, that’s going a bit far,’ ” she says, presiding over her kitchen floor. But they sold immediately—people wanted to know if they’d been used by Genesis and Jaye. (Read: hoped.) Genesis, who now has gold teeth, C-cup breasts, and male plumbing, was flummoxed. “OK! You can have the secondhand dildos,” she conceded. “That was bizarre, even for me.”
Anyone acquainted with P-Orridge’s body of work might find that last bit surprising: bizarre, even for me. This is the human who once famously co-orchestrated Prostitution, a polemical 1976 exhibition that thrust porn, used Tampax sculptures, and transvestite guards into the London ICA and ultimately caused a Parliament member to condemn Genesis and cohorts as “wreckers of civilization.” This is someone who has jerked off onstage, wounded himself (then) in public, and was effectively exiled from his homeland. This is an individual frequently cited as the owner of 14 dick piercings, which may or may not still be true (didn’t ask). A person who met her soulmate in an s/m dungeon. A sentient being who believes so resolutely that art and life are one and the same that she and her wife had doctors carve up their bodies in a quest for pandrogeny—the process of merging their identities through surgeries, mannerisms, and dress.
So how does a living legend like Genesis live? Like everyone. White walls, wooden floors, gas stove. Toilet, sink, refrigerator, coat rack. Throw rugs, futon, laptop, phone. The Keith Richards memoir Life, Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Deception (!), Dr. Julian Whitaker’s Reversing Diabetes harmoniously occupying the living-room bookshelf. (P-Orridge learned last fall, after returning home early from an aborted Throbbing Gristle tour, that she was diabetic.) Barbed novelty-shop bromides in the form of a rectangular pink pillow cautioning “WARNING: I REALLY DON’T CARE.” A perfectly acerbic magnet that cracks “I WOULD RATHER BE 40 THAN PREGNANT.” A pair of satiny slippers on a mat by the front door, patterned with teddy bears.
And like no one. A yonic Virgin Mary figure. A cardboard box marked “Yoko Ono–Art Piece.” A closet full of Rubbermaid storage containers stuffed with fetish clothes, wigs, Tibetan cloth. An air-conditioned bedroom where the temperature is fixed at a chilly 63 degrees. (She doesn’t pay for utilities.) A wolf-fur bedspread, inspired by Kirk Douglas in The Vikings (“I just blew my entire credit card on it”). A catastrophe-prone snake-shaped Shiva trumpet from Kathmandu. Genesis was warned not to blow it idly—the instrument allegedly conjures the forces of Shiva, destruction and so on—but she played it one day during a Pigface recording session in L.A., with Skinny Puppy’s Ogre and bassist caricature Flea. “Well, that was the night of the earthquake,” she reports impishly. The instrument hasn’t been played since.
And like a widow. A carved-rabbit blood totem with a lock of Jaye’s hair sits on a dresser. The first photo Jaye ever sent Gen hangs from the bedroom wall. In the living area, there’s an enlargement of the last photo of Lady Jaye ever taken, rescued from her cell phone after she died, sunglasses, red lips, extended middle finger. (“It’s as if she knew,” Genesis says with a sigh.) Their wedding photo from Friday, June 13, 1995, is especially prescient: Jaye is the groom—blond hair greased back with skintight biker pants, a leather vest with nothing underneath, a drawn-on mustache—cradling her dreadlocked bride.
This is partly why Queens was so ideal for so long. “In January 1996, we arrived as husband and wife, me still dressing and technically behaving male, and all the local shopkeepers who knew Jaye from being a kid, all the neighbors, being like, ‘Oh, you’re the husband! We’ve heard about you.’ And then over the years, we transformed more and more until we were both running around in miniskirts, dressed the same, and none of them said anything! Except in the pharmacy, where very politely, one of the Pakistani guys we knew very well there—we talked about cricket with him, because he loved to talk about cricket—and he says one day, ‘Hope you don’t mind me asking, but you probably want us to say “Miss P-Orridge” now, don’t you?’ We said, ‘That would be good!’ And that was the one time anyone even mentioned that anything had happened.”
But Ridgewood’s gentrification eventually became suffocating. “When me and Jaye moved in, we’d get the subway home a lot and we were the only white people getting off the subway. It was mainly Puerto Rican, Dominican, African, and so on—everyone was happy and friendly. But we noticed over the last few years before [Jaye] passed and since, the influx of hipsters and all these people who looked like they went to NYU were getting off. And suddenly people would stop me coming out of the house with the dog and say, ‘Can I get your autograph? Can I get a photo with you?’ We thought, ‘Uh-oh. Our hideaway’s been found.’ “
Brooklyn would only be worse. So when it came time to sell the property—Genesis could no longer afford the house without Jaye’s contribution—she found this formerly Jewish co-op through a friend, Thee Majesty’s Bryin Dall, who lives down the hall. The location is, like most aspects of Genesis’s oeuvre, poetic. “We sat down with a few friends, and we said, ‘Why do you like it so much here?’ And we said, ‘I live in the last exit to Brooklyn. One of my favorite books from when I was a teenager!’ And now I’m living Last Exit to Brooklyn. But there it is: the last exit,” she says pointing to the road beside the Williamsburg Bridge, beneath her window. “There’s something kind of profoundly weird about it.”
Know a New Yorker with an interesting living situation? E-mail us your suggestions here.